When Washington State University’s Shock Physics Laboratory first opened a half-century ago, it focused on a fairly new field-looking at what happens to an object under intense, immediate pressure. Bright graduate students brainstormed exotic experiments which they fired through a 40-foot-long gas gun housed in the basement of the Physical Sciences Building. High pressure and short timescales were the key ingredients.

Back then, the program was supported by national defense money, had ties to the nuclear industry, and produced scientists who went on to work at national laboratories like Sandia, Livermore, and Los Alamos.

Today the guns are still in the basement. The students are still concocting complex experiments. And the lab still has ties to the keepers of the nation’s nuclear stockpile. What has changed is the notion of what is fast and what is short.

The laboratory has evolved into a large institute with its own $12.4-million building. It encompasses a cadre of top scientists and some of the newest and best equipment, cameras, and computers for the research field and now gets millions of dollars in federal research support. Most recently, it received an $18-million extension on a Department of Energy grant and $6.5 million from the Office of Naval Research to expand applied shock research to Spokane.

“This is truly a multidisciplinary research organization,” says Yogendra Gupta (’72 Ph.D. Phys.), director of WSU’s Institute for Shock Physics. With the scientists and students from the University’s physics, chemistry, and engineering departments, and with millions in defense funding for research, “we have a terrific amount of freedom here to do what we want to do.” And what Gupta wants to do is conduct first-rate fundamental science, produce first-rate scientists, and perform work in conjunction with the national laboratories.

Often in science, simplicity is elegance. Shock physics is a simple idea. It is the physics of what happens to material that has been hit with a wave of shock, like a meteor slamming into a hillside.

At WSU, shock waves have traditionally been made by giant guns that shoot one object into another with such force and speed and precision that the impact can, at least for an instant, change the physical and chemical properties of the target object. Now the equipment here has been expanded to include laser/shock and high-pressure laboratories.

The Institute for Shock Physics pairs big curious kids with big fabulous toys. Their research, which can have practical applications, really comes about from the big question “What if?”

Simple, yes. But these experiments are connected to a problem so big and complex that few want to think about it, and most have forgotten it exists. Pullman, an oasis of education in the rural west, is very much on the minds of leaders in the national nuclear security scene.

Feeding the future

When Yogi Gupta looks at new graduate students, he wants to see more than just grades and resumes. He wants to see them explore. He watches how they work in the labs and how willing they are to try different things before settling on a course of research. He looks beyond their basic scientific ability to gauge their curiosity, their resourcefulness in building their own experiments, and their excitement.

“One of the biggest challenges facing this nation now is the lack of U.S. citizens studying science and engineering,” says Gupta. And when it comes to shock dynamics the challenge grows to needing well-educated scientists who are willing to take risks, he says.

“I view myself as a symphony conductor. And you know, a good symphony needs good musicians,” he says. On the floor below his office the musicians are bent over their workbenches piecing together a target or dashing between workshops and labs with tools in their hands, preparing to fire an experiment.

One winter afternoon, student Brandon Lalone carried into the lab a projectile he needed to tweak once more before running his laser shock experiment scheduled a few days out. Seth Root zipped by into the low light of a nearby room and pushed a couple of buttons on a machine. He explained he was adjusting the light that will help him see how benzene, a highly flammable liquid, reacts under the pressure of a shock wave.

“My whole experiment is going to last less than two microseconds,” Root says of the project he has spent a week preparing and an entire day just setting up. He looked up from the computer and laughed, “You know, in my three years here, my total experiment time is less than one second.”

Meanwhile, in a nearby laboratory, chemist James Patterson, a postdoctoral researcher, works with RDX, a highly explosive material. While RDX can be volatile when mixed with other explosives, it’s no danger in the amount Patterson uses, as he studies what happens to the material when it is shocked at different pressures.

Patterson admits that preparing for experiments can be somewhat tedious. He needs a crystal of RDX that’s only 400 microns thick, just four times the thickness of a strand of human hair. “It doesn’t just come that way. I have to hand polish it,” he says. “It takes me eight to ten hours to do it. I just turn my brain off and sand. Then I look up and realize it’s almost time for lunch.”

The key thing to remember for all these experiments, says Patterson, is that you really need to know where you’re going, and what to look for. “You can’t do a shot in the dark,” he says, then laughs. “Though you could say we sit in the dark when we do our shots.”

When it comes to explaining exactly what happens here under Gupta’s watch, even some University leaders struggle with the words.

Gupta says he has no problem summarizing what takes place at the shock institute. “Do you want the one-minute version, the five-minute version, the one-hour version, or the 50-hour version?” he says, throwing up his hands. “The fact of the matter is we are about scientific excitement.”

It’s clear Gupta loves his work, he loves his students, he even loves the fancy hand-tufted carpet on the floor of his new office, which he’s quick to say was a gift and didn’t come from any taxpayer dollars. “This is a passion, not a job,” he says, gesturing to the building around him and the students below.

Nuclear impact

The legacy of shock physics stems back to the late 1940s. In the wake of World War II, the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear device, and the arms race was on. The United States determined that staying ahead would require the best scientists and the best weapons. While the private research labs were taking some of that responsibility, more needed to be done.

A new federal funding model emerged, one that channeled money from the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy into universities around the country for research and the training of the next generation of national scientists. By the late 1950s, WSU’s physics department had started on shock-wave research.

In 1965 WSU hired George Duvall from the Stanford Research Institute, a private California-based company that performed work for the government. Duvall had established SRI’s Shock Physics Group and took part in the earliest examinations of shock propagation. He brought that expertise to Pullman, where, as one former student says, he was one of the fathers of modern-day shock physics.

In 1968, WSU became the first university in the country to conduct shock experiments. It had a U.S. Department of Defense-funded laboratory dedicated to shock dynamics. The high-caliber program drew students like Yogi Gupta, James Asay, Jerry Forbes, and Robert Hixson, the next generation of leading scientists in the field.

Gupta went on to work at the Stanford Research Institute, Asay went to Sandia, Forbes went to Lawrence Livermore, and Hixson landed at Los Alamos.

Hixson, now a Los Alamos research leader, looks back fondly on the days he and his classmates would perform tests with the four-inch-diameter gas gun in the basement. A single thesis would take a year or two to organize, and there was always an edge of worry that when the gun fired, the sensors might not work and you’d have to start all over again. And though the work was demanding and rigorous, there was a playful rivalry among the classmates.

“It was a very vital effort back in the ’70s,” he says. “And there was a lot of competition to fire the gun.”

Today Hixson uses shock dynamics to better understand the detonation behavior of high explosives. He also keeps an eye on the efforts of the WSU lab, which, like the national labs, has physicists working with chemists and engineers to perform experiments. While the research there is important, the University’s main contribution to the national scene is developing the next generation of guardians of the country’s nuclear stockpile, he says.

Other experts agree. The government leaders in the beltway aren’t thinking 15 years out, they may not even be thinking past the next budget cycle, said Jay Davis, nuclear physicist and former director of the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, when he was on campus in 2003. It’s up to the academic and industrial communities to think ahead, he said. In fact, American scientists are now designing new nuclear arms that are meant to be more stable, reliable, and longer-lasting. They are planning to finish designs in the next five to ten years.

WSU and other schools work closely with the national labs. Besides producing scientists, the schools perform auxiliary research and develop new techniques.

WSU’s ties with Sandia helped garner the giant two-phase gun that sits along the east wall on the bottom floor of the institute. It was a gift for the new shock facility, and engineer Cory Bakeman (’04 Mech. Engr.) has been piecing it together since last May. Having a gas phase as well as a gunpowder phase makes the gun faster and more powerful. It will allow for experiments at three times the impact the lab can achieve now. “We needed it. They had it and weren’t using it,” says Gupta of the gun.

It arrived in pieces packed in crates, stacked in boxes, and sometimes just loose with a label. The one thing it didn’t come with was assembly instructions.

The biggest components, the barrel and frame, are the heart of the equipment, but much of the rest Bakeman has had to design and build. “The job entails kind of all the aspects of engineering,” he says. “It’s like putting a puzzle together with half of the pieces gone.”

Stockpile students

Federal agencies and national laboratories like Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, and Los Alamos have an interest in seeing Washington State University’s program and others like it succeed.

“They are a key component for developing people for us and techniques,” says David Crandall, head of research and development for the National Nuclear Security Administration. “It’s just the kind of place we need to have connections to and we need to have trained scientists from.” A few years ago, the NNSA adopted WSU as its principal university for shock physics work.

The connection joins WSU with a small, select group of schools, including Rutgers, Cornell, the University of Texas, and the University of Nevada Las Vegas, which all have a number of scientists working with support from the NNSA.

A nuclear weapon has as many parts to it as a Toyota, Crandall says. “It’s more complicated in some ways and less complicated in others.” The hardest part to understand is the initial phase, when an explosion triggers a nuclear reaction, he says.

Nuclear testing in the United States was halted in 1992. Since then, the keepers of the national stockpile have had to work out experiments to determine how the weapons are aging. They have to figure out how to keep them effective and how to protect them from accident or terrorist design, says Crandall. And they have the complicated job of figuring out how to do all this without ever setting one off.

The heart of a nuclear weapon is the behavior of plutonium, uranium, and neutrons. The scientists must perform simulations to figure out what to do with the nuclear weapons if they have problems or to protect them from being set off accidentally or by sabotage. The other part of their job is to ensure those weapons can work, or as Crandall describes it, maintain the deterrent.

In the next 10 to 15 years, as the stockpile ages, simulations will be increasingly important, says Crandall. Precise physical measurements, higher-energy physics, and how materials move and behave at very high pressures and densities are tied to shock physics, he says. “It turns out to be a key element in all of them.”

“The public really doesn’t want to talk about nuclear weapons very much, but citizens do expect the president and governmental organizations to do the right thing,” says Crandall. That includes maintaining a nuclear deterrent that’s safe, protected, and dependable without nuclear testing, he says. “We need shock physics, and there are not many institutes that do it.”

Shock scientists and engineers steadily flow through the Pullman institute to visit with Gupta, check up on the research, and advise the students, who are grateful for the attention and the chance to rub elbows with the leaders in their field.

The students who come out of the shock institute are sound scientists, says Gupta. “When they leave here they are independent thinkers.” He warns them not to bask in their successes while here. It doesn’t matter if they’ve made one great breakthrough; it will be forgotten in a couple of years. “What’s important is they keep on doing wonderful things for the next 20 years.”

Gupta jokingly tells their potential employers that if they don’t like their new hires from WSU, “they can send them back.”

They never have.